In the pursuit of higher education and personal growth, universities are often regarded as sanctuaries of knowledge and enlightenment. However, beneath the facade of academia lies a distressing and pervasive issue that has long been shrouded in silence and stigma: sexual assault.
Within the confines of Nigerian universities, a distressing narrative of gender-based violence has been unfolding, casting a sombre shadow over the very institutions meant to foster learning and empowerment.
So, it barely came as a shock to many when early this week, law students from the University of Calabar protested to demand the resignation of the Dean of the school’s faculty of law over allegations of sexual abuse.
The students dressed in their traditional black and white, Wielded placards with different inscriptions, including “Law girls are not bonanzas, Prof Ndifon should stop grabbing us”, “the law faculty is not a brothel”, “prof Ndifon must go for our sanity”, amongst others.
But this is not the first time lecturers in Nigerian higher institutions of learning have been embroiled in sexual-related allegations.
Two months ago, Jennifer Utulu, a University of Lagos or UNILAG postgraduate student, accused two lecturers with the Department of Creative Arts of sexually harassing her.
In a petition Utulu sent to the ICPC, she accused Dr Felix Emoruwa and Dr Adebisi Ademakinwa of refusing to supervise her unless she agreed to their sexual requests and was pleading with the ICPC to come to help her.
In 2021, Dr Steve Ekunday, a lecturer at the University of Benin or Uniben, was said to have been arrested by the police in Benin, the Edo State capital, over allegations of raping a final-year student in his office.
The school later released a statement acknowledging the incident, adding that due to “the gravity of the allegations and legal issues involved, the matter has been referred to the police for further investigation.
All this and more is what led Gender Mobile Initiative or GMI, a Civil Society Organisation, to say that 70% of the female population in the country’s school system have experienced sexual harassment, and it seems this number is only increasing.
The case of CY
This is not Ndifon’s rodeo with sexual-related allegations. In 2015, Ndifon was suspended by the University authority after allegations that he raped a 20-year-old, 200-level law student in his office.
He had challenged his suspension at the National Industrial Court in Calabar and lost. Still, he was reinstated in unclear circumstances and returned as the Dean of the faculty.
This time, Ndifon is accusing Ben Otu, the president of the Law Students Association, Unical chapter, of orchestrating the protest against him.
Ndifon insists that Otu is “merely a pun” in the game to remove him as the Dean of the faculty.
“Some lecturers are the real people behind this,” he said.
Sexual assault perpetrated by lecturers casts a long and sinister shadow over the educational journey of female university students in Nigeria. The breach of trust that occurs when an academic authority figure exploits their position of influence for personal gain has far-reaching implications.
Female students often regard their lecturers as mentors and guides, relying on them for guidance in both academic and personal matters. When these mentors become perpetrators, the inherent power dynamics are skewed, leaving students vulnerable and powerless.
The erosion of trust damages the students' ability and their faith in the institution itself. This erosion can potentially hinder academic performance and personal growth and even deter talented young women from pursuing their educational aspirations.
Also, the aftermath of a sexual assault can inflict psychological and emotional wounds on female students. The trauma resulting from such experiences can manifest as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a range of emotional challenges. Survivors often grapple with feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame, exacerbating the difficulty of seeking support or justice.
The impact resonates beyond the classroom, infiltrating personal relationships, self-esteem, and overall well-being. The burden of secrecy and the fear of stigma prevent many survivors from voicing their trauma, leaving them isolated in their pain. This cycle perpetuates a culture of silence that ultimately perpetuates the issue.
Let the girl’s breath
Addressing and preventing sexual harassment of female students in Nigerian universities requires a comprehensive and sustained effort involving education, policy reform, and cultural change. The endemic nature of this issue necessitates a multifaceted approach that targets various levels of the university ecosystem.
To begin, universities must take a proactive stance by instituting and rigorously enforcing robust anti-sexual harassment policies. These policies should be clearly articulated, widely disseminated, and strictly adhered to.
In addition to disciplinary actions, universities should provide training sessions and workshops for both students and faculty to raise awareness about the definitions of sexual harassment and the psychological and emotional toll it takes on survivors. These initiatives should emphasise the importance of bystander intervention and the role that everyone can play in creating a safer environment.
Cultural change is fundamental to eradicating sexual harassment. Nigerian universities should launch sustained awareness campaigns that challenge deeply rooted gender norms, power imbalances, and stereotypes that contribute to such behaviour.
Promoting gender equality through lectures, workshops, and events can encourage critical discussions on how these societal norms perpetuate harassment and how they can be changed. Engaging male students and faculty as allies and advocates for gender equality can also contribute significantly to shifting the campus culture.
Creating robust support systems for survivors is another pivotal aspect of this endeavour. Universities should establish confidential reporting mechanisms that allow survivors to share their experiences without fear of retribution. Adequate counselling services should be available to help survivors heal and regain a sense of agency. Peer support groups can offer a sense of community and understanding. At the administrative level, a clear commitment to a zero-tolerance approach is imperative, emphasising that all allegations will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate actions taken, regardless of the perpetrator's status within the university.
By blending these strategies, Nigerian universities can foster an environment that is unwaveringly committed to preventing sexual harassment and ensuring the safety, dignity, and well-being of all students, especially women. This holistic approach is essential in combating the deeply entrenched patterns of harassment and creating lasting change within the university system and, ultimately, society as a whole.